Strong Growth in Merchandise Imports to Resume in the Fall

Retailers cautious with imports over summer months but do expect increasing numbers closer to holiday season

Import volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase a modest 1.1 percent in July over the same month last year but a slow summer should be followed by significant increases as retailers head into the holiday season this fall, according to this month’s Global Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Hackett Associates.

“With the economy recovering slowly, retailers have been cautious with imports this summer but it’s clear that they expect an upturn later in the year,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy, NRF. “Import numbers have been close to flat since spring, but we expect to see stronger increases this fall.”

Cargo import numbers do not correlate directly with retail sales or employment because they count only the number of cargo containers brought into the country, not the value of the merchandise inside them. But the amount of merchandise imported nonetheless provides a rough barometer of retailers’ expectations.

U.S. ports followed by Global Port Tracker handled 1.38 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in May, the latest month for which after-the-fact numbers are available. That was up 1.2 percent from April but only 0.6 percent from May 2012. One TEU is one 20-foot cargo container or its equivalent.

  • June was estimated at 1.37 million TEU, down 0.7 percent from a year ago
  • July is forecast at 1.43 million TEU, up 1.1 percent from last year
  • August is forecasted at 1.45 million TEU, up 1.7 percent
  • September is forecasted at 1.44 million TEU, up 2.4 percent
  • October is forecasted at 1.46 million TEU, up 9.1 percent
  • November is forecasted at 1.38 million TEU, up 7.3 percent


The first six months of 2013 totaled an estimated 7.8 million TEU, up 1.2 percent from the first half of 2012. The total for 2012 was 15.8 million TEU, up 2.9 percent from 2011.

Despite the projected increase in imports, Hackett Associates Founder Ben Hackett said actual results will hinge on consumer confidence.

“Consumer sales remain relatively weak compared with GDP,” said Hackett. “If consumers do not turn their confidence into purchases then import volumes will drop.”

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